Title: Our Game
Author: John Le Carré
Le Carré, John (1995). Our Game: A Novel: New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House
PR6062.E33 O97 1995b
Date Posted: April 6, 2017
Reviewed by Michael Scammell
In 1939 George Orwell wrote a celebrated article called “Boys’ Weeklies,” in which he analyzed the stories that were most popular in publications like Gem, Magnet, Wizard, Hotspur, Champion, and Triumph, and speculated about their influence on British adolescents. These magazines, he discovered, devoted an inordinate amount of space to stories about the adventures of rich boys in England’s public schools, as well as to more predictable tales of derring-do by dashing military figures, secret servicemen, detectives, explorers and the like. Moreover, he found that the ethos of the public schools was carried over into many of the action tales more or less intact.
Orwell was writing about the 1930s, but most of those “comics,” as they were misleadingly called, survived virtually unchanged into the 40s, when John le Carré and I were growing up in England, and I vividly remember the shock of recognition I experienced when reading Orwell’s article. It was with a similar feeling that I read Our Game and realized anew not only the kinship between the espionage novel and the adventure stories of the boys’ weeklies but also the manner in which Mr. le Carré uses so many of the old conventions.
John le Carré’s England in Our Game is that familiar land that is governed a bit like a giant public school, with the senior boys (in Whitehall, the upper echelons of the civil service and especially the secret service) keeping an iron grip on the junior boys and trying to make sure that nothing gets in the way of their running the show. The twist comes when one of the top boys gets blackballed or resigns from the ruling club in a huff. According to the old conventions, such a man would have been a bounder or a cad, but Mr. le Carré’s trick is to make him the hero—with the understanding, of course, that it is the outcast who is the genuine man of honor.
The insider who goes outside in Our Game is also the novel’s narrator—a former Treasury official and secret spymaster named Timothy Cranmer, who has retired to his 17th-century mansion in southwest England after being pensioned off at the end of the Cold War. Cranmer is from public school, so he knows how to furnish a house with Queen Anne antiques, can recognize a ‘55 Cheval Blanc when he tastes it and naturally appreciates an Oxford college that has the decency to use good silver. He has also picked himself a sexy young mistress, Emma, of the right type: boarding school, musical education in Vienna, rich friends in Paris — even though she has kicked around a bit before arriving in Cranmer’s drawing room.
The novel opens when Cranmer is visited late one Sunday night by two of the most improbable policemen (to judge by their Dickensian diction) in the history of English fiction. They insolently inform this mandarin that a friend of his, Larry Pettifer, has disappeared, under suspicious circumstances, from his lodgings in a provincial university town, and want to know if Cranmer has seen him lately.
Cranmer is appalled, because Pettifer is a former double agent who had penetrated the K.G.B. under his guidance before also being pensioned off. The two had met at (where else?) public school, where the older Cranmer took Pettifer under his wing to protect him from the usual bullying. They converged again at Oxford, and Cranmer recruited, trained and ran him for 25 years before their forced retirement. But the more immediate problem for Cranmer is that Pettifer has recently run off with the entrancing young Emma, and Cranmer doesn’t know where the two of them are.
Having established that his former secret service employers are not responsible, and that the police know nothing of his—or Pettifer’s—espionage activities, Cranmer sets out to find Pettifer and, with luck, recover his mistress. He also hopes to rescue Pettifer from whatever scrape he has got himself into, since he feels guilty for manipulating him into spying in the first place.
Cranmer eventually learns that with the help of some still-unknown accomplices, Pettifer has been involved in embezzling upwards of $50 million from the Russian Government. Worse still, Cranmer is suspected of being his accomplice and is therefore himself a sort of fugitive. He doesn’t believe for a moment that Pettifer stole the money. He may be a drunkard, womanizer, liar and disloyal friend, but he is a quixotic, Byronic figure with a heart of gold and a complete disregard for material comforts (Orwell would have recognized him). He is also a political romantic and a lover of hopeless causes.
It is this last trait that offers Cranmer the clue he needs, and he sets out to unravel the mystery with the help of chums in high places. He discovers that Pettifer has been involved in some mysterious import-export business having something to do with the Caucasus. He also recalls that Pettifer’s K.G.B. control in London, Konstantin Checheyev, was a native of the Ingushetia region, who has since, like Pettifer (and Cranmer), been put out to pasture. Checheyev has now gone freelance and has enlisted Pettifer, who sees himself as a latter-day Lawrence of Arabia, to run guns and ammunition to Ingushetia to help it oppose its Russian oppressors.
As an adventure novel in the British tradition of John Buchan and Eric Ambler, Our Game is moderately successful. But Mr. le Carré has also tried to endow the book with psychological subtlety and political relevance. Pettifer is represented as a sort of sub-Dostoyevskian doppelganger of the repressed Cranmer, while Mr. le Carré’s sympathy for the people of the Caucasus is expressed in a way that is clearly meant to invoke contempt for the excesses of a brutal Russia, operating with the tacit support of a perfidious Britain and an indifferent America.
Yet these larger ambitions seem ineffectual. Pettifer may be intended as a sort of heterosexual Guy Burgess, but he lacks depth and psychological interest, as do some of the book’s other characters. And the political content is introduced by stopping the action from time to time for a character to deliver a brief lecture on Caucasian history and the sins of the superpowers.
Orwell noted that at its best, boys’ adventure literature has a strong narrative drive and considerable suspense. The problem with the fancier aspirations of Our Game is that not only do they not work on their own terms, but they also get in the way of these simpler virtues. Mr. le Carré’s great strength is that he is a master plotter. His premise of intelligence agents running amok since the end of the Cold War is totally plausible, and the way he links his major characters through their professional roles is ingenious. After taking forever to get there, the reader comes across some 40 pages that are as taut and thrilling as any adventure story I have ever read. They just happen to consist of continuous narrative —with no tricky flashbacks, very little psychologizing and no political lectures—and they provide a momentum that lifts almost the entire last third of the novel. If only the first 200 pages were like that, former readers of Hotspur and Triumph (including this one) would be enthralled.
“I am not given to panic, but that night I came as near to it as I had ever come. Which of us were they pursuing—Larry or me? Or both of us? How much did they know of Emma? Why had Checheyev visited Larry in Bath and when, when, when? Those policemen weren’t looking for some fringe academic who had gone walkabout for a few days. They were on a trail, smelling blood, hunting someone who appealed to their most aggressive instincts.”
“Yet who did they think he was—Larry, my Larry, our Larry? What had he done? This talk of money, Russians, deals, Checheyev, me, socialism, me again. . . . How could Larry be anything except what we had made him: a directionless English middle-class revolutionary, a permanent dissident, a dabbler, a dreamer, a habitual rejecter; a ruthless, shiftless, philandering, wasted, semicreative failure, too clever not to demolish an argument, too mulish to settle for a flawed one?”
“And who did they think I was—this solitary retired civil servant, speaking his foreign languages to himself, making wine and playing the good Samaritan in his desirable Somerset vineyard? You should keep a dog indeed! Why should they assume, just because I was alone, that I was incomplete? Why pursue me, merely because they couldn’t get their hands on Larry or Checheyev? And Emma—my fragile, or not so fragile, departed mistress of Honeybrook: how long before she too is in their sights?”
— From Our Game.